I wrote this article in a Kelowna hotel as tens of thousands of nearby apple trees sat in the cold and snowy Okanagan winter, awaiting a pruning by attentive orchardists. Amongst those trees were some of the most popular varieties grown in BC: Gala, Spartan, Honeycrisp, and Ambrosia. But the apple story in BC doesn’t begin and end in the fruit belts of the Island and Okanagan. Over the past 50 years, there’s been an upstart apple-growing trade much closer to my Vancouver base: the Fraser Valley, home to a small but wily group of orchardists.
In the 1980s, the Fraser Valley apple industry was set to be re-established by a variety called Jonagold. This apple came from the Eastern US and consumers seemed to like it. Close to 1,500 acres were planted throughout the region, and they grew well for the first ten years. Then anthracnose canker hit. The affected trees were replanted, but in the ensuing years most of the farmers moved away from apples and into blueberries, currants, and other easier-to-tend crops. There are now only a handful of commercial orchards in the Valley.
For a cider maker, finding ideal cider apples can be one’s biggest challenge. Getting commercial varieties from big apple packers is simple. But finding interesting apple varieties—like those grown for years by Jim Rahe of Langley’s Annie’s Orchard—is more like detective work. Now, due to a combination of climate, pests, and the passage of three decades, cider makers can no longer turn to Annie’s, and the Fraser Valley has lost a revered orchard.
The Birth of Annie’s Orchard
Jim and Mary Anne Rahe met and married early, while Jim was studying biochemistry at Purdue University in Indiana and Mary Anne was a nurse in town. After World War Two, teaching jobs were plentiful and graduates were scarce. Jim found a job at Simon Fraser University in 1969, and they started a family in Coquitlam. But suburban life wasn’t for Mary Anne; she was raised on a farm and enjoyed that lifestyle. Luckily, they found a small orchard of 30 trees and relocated to Langley in 1979.
Jim had always been fascinated by growing apples and the small orchard quickly caught his attention. Annie’s Orchard was established, growing and selling apples to the public from a roadside stand. The original 30 trees became an orchard of over 2,000 with some 300 heritage varietals.
Three hundred is a small fraction of global apple varietals, but it was too much for one orchard. The general public was overwhelmed by choice, so much of the Rahes’ efforts went to waste. They pared the original 300 down to a more manageable 50 varieties, chosen for unique qualities and for the time of year they ripened. The Rahes wanted a steady stream of apples flowing from the orchard to the sales stand.
Soon, word spread around the Lower Mainland. The Brits talked up the Cox’s Orange Pippins, the Dutch spread the word about the Belle de Boskoop, and soon enough they had a busy little operation. It didn’t generate that much money; just enough to keep Jim interested. At the peak of the orchard, Jim was selling a big chunk of his apples to the UBC Apple Festival. If you tried a Northern Spy there a bunch of years ago, it was probably one of Jim’s apples.
Over the 30 years of its operation, Annie’s Orchard kept growing those amazing apples and introducing them to a hungry Lower Mainland. Jim’s operation also provided stock for other growers who wanted to diversify their crops. A heritage apple from somewhere else in the province probably started in Jim’s orchard.
The Pursuit of Suitable Fruit: why Annie’s Orchard mattered
The greatest similarities between beer and cider lie in the fermentation and aging processes. Where brewers and cider makers truly diverge is in the procurement of our base ingredient: malted grain for beer versus apples for cider. Seeing a pallet of malt arrive at a brewery anytime year-round makes me envious. Craft cider makers have just one season to procure their fruit – the fall.
Finding your apples is another story. The grocery-store apples we know and love are a very manicured apple. They’re a commercial crop, bred to yield huge numbers per acre. Macintosh, Spartan, Gala, and Honey Crisp are all grown much the same way: in rows, like grape vines. Orchards that might have had 400 trees per acre can now crowd 2,200 trees into the same area.
Heritage orchards like Jim’s are different; they are planted with metres, rather than centimeters, between trunks. They don’t fruit massively, nor even every year in some cases. Yields are a third to a tenth that of the commercial varieties. And they can be the most beautifully delicious apples. Have you enjoyed a Belle de Boskoop? A Winesap? A Cox’s Orange Pippin? They’re complex apples. They also make pretty darned good cider.
The End Of An Era
The tiny crab apples that grow in Jim and Mary Anne’s front yard are a marvel of condensed tannins, like little tannin bombs. But time has caught up with the little orchard in Langley. They closed their doors permanently in 2019.
One reason Jim is ending his apple growing career is the marine climate in the Lower Mainland. The winter isn’t cold enough to kill off apple maggot (a worm that burrows into the fruit, leaving both itself and a tell-tale trail). Maggoty apples aren’t a problem for cider makers because the fruit’s appearance isn’t an issue…but packing houses and consumers won’t buy them.
On the other hand, the Lower Mainland winter is wet enough to propagate anthracnose canker, a fungus whose spores get into the bark of the apple tree. These spores drip down from the crown of the tree, infecting the entire bark system and effectively stopping the tree from fruiting. This canker is one reason Jim’s crop has dropped from 60,000 pounds per year to the current 15,000. He has to keep culling the infected trees—hard work for older hands.
Over the years since I first met Jim, he’s sold me the first Northern Spy and Orange Pippin apples that I pressed for test batches of single varietal ciders. He’s also introduced me to the beauty and complexity of the heritage apples he grows. The flavour in my first bite of the amazing Dutch Belle de Boskoop apple was so intense I almost crashed my car.
For their part, Jim and Mary Anne Rahe share the same favourite apple: the Gravenstein. They have been an inspiration to Lower Mainland apple lovers, and we wish them well in their apple retirement.